Revitalizing Bigelow Chapel & Asa Gray Garden

February 1, 2018

As part of its Strategic Plan, Mount Auburn is currently revitalizing two of its most celebrated landmarks, Asa Gray Garden and Bigelow Chapel. Together these projects are part of a larger initiative to enhance the experience of arriving at and being within Mount Auburn, a place that has served to comfort the bereaved and inspire all who visit since its founding. Independently, each project presents an exciting new chapter in the Cemetery’s history.

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Bigelow Chapel, the Cemetery’s first major building, is being renovated to provide a beautiful and appropriate space for a variety of private family gatherings and public events. Asa Gray Garden, prominently located between the Cemetery’s two chapels in the entrance area, is being transformed to reflect contemporary landscape design and horticultural trends while encouraging greater public use as a garden space for contemplation and inspiration. These two exciting projects support Mount Auburn’s vision to stand as a national leader among cemeteries and public gardens. Learn more about this ambitious project below.


Under the direction of the award-winning architecture firm William Rawn Associates, BIGELOW CHAPEL is being revitalized to meet the changing needs of families and the visiting public. A new entrance providing universal access will graciously welcome everyone arriving to attend a private family service or a public event. New multi-use gathering spaces will provide numerous options for intimate memorial services in a non-denomination setting, informal receptions following services or burials, and a host of public events. A modern state-of-the-art Crematory, replacing an existing but outdated facility, will prepare Mount Auburn for the growing public interest in cremation and ensure the institution’s place as 21st-century leader within the Cemetery industry.


Mount Auburn’s trustees approved the ambitious project to revitalize Bigelow Chapel, seeing the project as a disciplined investment in the Cemetery’s core business activity. In anticipation of changing trends, Mount Auburn’s future business activity will rely increasingly on cremation services and space rentals.

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Mount Auburn left a lasting mark on our nation’s history with its founding in 1831. Among its many important legacies, the Cemetery permanently changed the way Americans thought about burying and commemorating their dead. For nearly two centuries, Mount Auburn has evolved its offerings and services in response to changing trends and preferences about burial and commemoration. Preparing for its future as an active cemetery, Mount Auburn has developed a new business plan that emphasizes a more diverse choice of cremation and end-of-life services to supplement the sale of new burial space. Growing these areas of the Cemetery’s business and diversifying its sources of earned revenue will ensure the financial health and stability of Mount Auburn for decades to come.

Informing Mount Auburn’s decision to expand its cremation offerings and chapel rental program are industry predictions that chart a rapid growth in the national cremation rate and an increased demand for more personalized and unique end-of-life celebrations. Mount Auburn’s experiences align with these industry predictions, having already seen a steady growth in the demand for cremation services and a dramatic rise in the use of its two chapels for services and memorial receptions. To date, the Cemetery has absorbed this increased demand, but the limitations of its existing facilities hinder its ability to expand offerings and services in the future. In 2016, Mount Auburn’s trustees approved the ambitious project to revitalize Bigelow Chapel, seeing the project as a disciplined investment in the Cemetery’s core business activity, which will support Mount Auburn’s current initiatives and its business plan.


A new crematory will enable Mount Auburn to offer cremation services that meet the changing needs of today’s clients.

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A new state-of-the-art Crematory housed within the addition will allow Mount Auburn to meet growing demand for its cremation and cremation services in the decades to come. New equipment, offering faster cremation times and improved fuel efficiency, will greatly improve the quality of its cremation services while supporting the Cemetery’s commitment to being a model of environmental stewardship. A clean, modern space will welcome funeral directors and accommodate family participation in the actual cremation process.

The highlight of Mount Auburn’s new Crematory is its new Viewing Room. Within this space, families opting to participate in the cremation process may gather to watch as the casket enters the crematory retort. Families choosing to do so will even be able to press a button starting the actual cremation. The act of observing a cremation is a practice gaining in popularity in the United States. Though Mount Auburn has for many years been providing families with the opportunity to observe the start of a cremation, its previous facility was not designed with any ritual or ceremonial gatherings in mind. By contrast, the Viewing Room, a beautiful and serene space with its own private garden, was designed to support family participation in all aspects of the cremation process, a service we envision growing in the years to come.

Rendering of Mount Auburn’s new Viewing Room. Illustration by William Rawn Associates.


Increasingly Bigelow Chapel is being used for unique and personalized end-of-life events and innovative public programs. The current building enhancement project, featuring a new glass addition and facility improvements, will ensure the ongoing use of the Chapel for decades to come.

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A graceful addition connected to the historic Chapel will offer a space for personalized and meaningful private gatherings. Referencing the founding vision that nature be used to console the bereaved, the addition features floor-to-ceiling glass that visually connects visitors within the space to the beautiful and meditative landscape outside. Within the addition, families will be able to gather before services held in the Chapel or the Crematory. Within this same space, families can host memorial receptions following a service in one of our chapels or a burial service on the grounds. The small gathering room overlooking Asa Gray Garden may also be used for private memorial services.

The intimate scale and romantic associations that have made Bigelow Chapel the preferred location for private events also make it an ideal setting for many of our public programs. The Cemetery will share this architectural treasure with the public by hosting some of its indoor programs and events—everything from talks and discussion groups to readings and musical performances—in the revitalized Chapel. In addition to formal events, the Cemetery will offer regular Open Houses in the space, granting causal visitors access to the Cemetery’s great architectural treasure, now a marriage of historic and contemporary architectural tastes. The Chapel will also play a critical role in the expansion of programming that offers a thoughtful examination of grief, death, and dying, an area for which there is already great public interest and demand.

With the completion of this project, the Chapel will be outfitted with the modern amenities it has lacked until now. These much-needed improvements will create a more welcoming and comfortable space for every Cemetery visitor. Most significantly, a new Entrance will provide universal access to both the new addition and the historic Chapel. New restrooms will accommodate larger gatherings and events in the space. Improvements to the lighting and acoustics of the Chapel will ensure that the historic space meets the same high standards as its new addition.

Explore the features of the revitalized Bigelow Chapel below.


While construction of the new addition proceeds, Bigelow Chapel’s Great Rose Window is being restored. Located over the entrance door to the Chapel, the large window is an important example of early stained glass in this country and one of the Chapel’s defining architectural features.

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The Great Rose Window was commissioned in 1845 by Jacob Bigelow as part of his original design for Bigelow Chapel. Bigelow selected the firm of Ballantine and Allan from Edinburgh, Scotland to furnish the colored and leaded glass, and to work with him on the design. The Great Rose Window is an important record of the firm’s early production and was among the first colored glass shipped to the United States by Ballantine and Allan.

Over the years the windows glass panels have bowed and cracked and previous waterproofing repairs obscured the delicate painted glass designs. Urgently in need of restoration, the fragile glass panels were carefully removed from their historic cast-iron frame in August 2017 and were transported to the studio of Serpentino Stained & Leaded Glass Inc. of Needham, MA, where they will be restored with oversight from Consultant Julie Sloan and Mount Auburn’s preservation and curatorial staff.

Learn More about the current Great Rose Window Restoration project >>>


In collaboration with the award-winning landscape architecture firm Halvorson Design Partnership, Mount Auburn has re-imagined ASA GRAY GARDEN, its most significant public space, to embody the Cemetery’s best qualities: a landscape of exquisite beauty comforting the bereaved and inspiring all who visit. Within the renovated Garden, visitors will enjoy a diverse selection of plants that provide year-round color, texture, and interest. Strategically placed seating and a new central water feature will foster a sense of contemplation for those in need of a place to reflect. An improved circulation system through and surrounding the Garden will provide greater access and encourage more visitors to explore its many special features. Carefully planned views into and out of the Garden will help to knit this important horticultural landmark into its surroundings while also connecting it to the other key architectural features, including Bigelow Chapel, that define the Cemetery’s Entrance.


The new Asa Gray Garden will celebrate the experience of arriving at Mount Auburn with a garden that is equal parts welcoming, comforting, and inspiring.

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Asa Gray Garden is the place from which most visits to Mount Auburn begin. Lawn Avenue, the road surrounding the Garden, provides visitor parking within sight of the Cemetery’s Entrance and Visitor Center. Families coming to Mount Auburn to attend a memorial service in one of its two chapels or assembling prior to a burial on the grounds also rely on Lawn Avenue and Asa Gray Garden as a place to gather. Despite its premier location in our Entrance and the heavy use of the road surrounding it, the actual garden has in recent years been largely overlooked. The current renovation will restore prominence to the Garden and reestablish its role as a significant destination within the Cemetery.

The new Garden celebrates the healing and inspirational qualities for which the Cemetery is known. Benches and seating ensembles placed throughout the Garden will offer a place to reflect quietly while enjoying the seasonal horticultural highlights. An enlarged central water feature and reflecting pool will create a sense of calm and offer a more graceful transition between the hectic world beyond the Cemetery gates and the tranquil and meditative landscape within. An improved circulation system will provide greater access in and through the Garden, encouraging more visitors to explore this unique setting.

The Harold Whitworth Pierce Charitable Trust awards a grant of $250,000 to name The Pierce Fountain >>>

Ripe with educational benefits, the new Garden will feature prominently on guided tours and within the Cemetery’s printed and electronic visitor guides. Sharing the story of the Garden’s evolution through time will help to educate visitors about the Cemetery’s history as an ever-changing landscape that reflects two centuries of design and horticultural practices. Specimens from the Garden will be regularly highlighted on horticulture-themed walking tours and its plant collection will help to interpret and celebrate the important legacy of the its namesake, botanist Asa Gray.

Rendering of renovated Asa Gray Garden, Halvorson Design Partnership.


Throughout its history, Asa Gray Garden has showcased the horticultural expertise and skill of the Cemetery’s staff. Like its previous iterations, the renovated Garden will be a contemporary reflection of Mount Auburn as a significant designed landscape with a long tradition of public horticulture.

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Learn more about the plants that will define the new Asa Gray garden below.

For several years, the horticultural staff has been actively working to extend periods of bloom throughout the spring and summer months and increase fall and winter-time interest by diversifying the plant collections of the Cemetery. The carefully-curated collection of trees, shrubs, flowering perennials and annuals, bulbs, and grasses selected for the new Asa Gray Garden will provide color, texture, and unique interest in all four seasons, ensuring that it exemplifies one of the defining characteristics of the Cemetery’s larger landscape.

Asa Gray (1810 – 1888)
Albumen print by John A. Whipple / University of South Carolina via Wikimedia Commons

Though transforming Asa Gray Garden into an impressive horticultural display garden has been the primary goal, the 130 species of plants to be included in the layout have been selected for more than just aesthetic qualities. Appropriate pairings of plant species indigenous to the Eastern United States and their counterparts indigenous to East Asia will celebrate the important botanical research of Harvard University professor Asa Gray (1810–1888), for whom the Garden is named. In the course of Gray’s ground-breaking work with herbarium specimens, he noted the striking similarities between American and Asian species. He advanced the hypothesis that these species had descended from common ancestors and developed subtle differences during their long separation on different continents. Gray was one of the leading American collaborators of Charles Darwin, and his work supporting Darwin’s theory of natural selection and species evolution helped to establish international respect for American scientific traditions. Gray was buried at Mount Auburn following his death in 1888. In the early 1940s the Cemetery’s Trustees voted to rename the Garden, previously known as “the Lawn,” in Gray’s honor. With the new plantings, the renovated Garden will become a living tribute to the “Father of American Botany,” helping to tell the story of his important work.

In addition to celebrating Asa Gray in a more dynamic way, the use of Asian species within the Garden references Mount Auburn’s long history of using non-native ornamental plants to add interest and diversity to the landscape. From early in its history, Mount Auburn benefited from the great age of plant exploration, adding specimens from around the world to its collections. While our landscape today has certainly benefitted from these exotic plant introductions, we have also learned valuable lessons about the potential dangers of some of these species becoming invasive and detrimental to native habitats and the environment. These lessons have been carefully considered with the plant selections chosen for Asa Gray Garden. Among their many other values, the selected plants will be used to foster a public conversation about responsible use of non-native species. In keeping with one of Mount Auburn’s key strategic initiatives to be a model of environmental stewardship, we are committed to utilizing the renovated Garden to help us teach about the importance of plant biodiversity as we respond to climate change, while also emphasizing the potential dangers of plant introductions from other parts of the world.

The renovated Asa Gray Garden will be a place of four-season interest that showcases ornamental trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses native to North America or Asia. Explore the images below to see some of the seasonal horticultural highlights planned for the garden.

Work began on both Bigelow Chapel and Asa Gray Garden during the summer of 2017. Asa Gray Garden is scheduled for completion in June 2018 and Bigelow Chapel will be completed in October 2018. Learn  more about the project milestones below.

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Protecting Mount Auburn’s distinctive landscape, caring of the historic monuments, structures, and archival artifacts and records, and providing our community with vital education and interpretive programs, lies at the heart of the shared mission of Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Friends of Mount Auburn, our non-profit educational trust.

Your support of the renovation of Asa Gray Garden and the restoration of Bigelow Chapel’s Great Rose Window will have a direct impact on two of our most celebrated landmarks.


Join us in renovating Asa Gray Garden into a year-round horticultural showpiece, featuring a mix of species from Asia and North America to reflect the studies of the renowned Harvard botanist. The project will transform the prominent gathering place into a superb ornamental garden designed for education, experimentation, and delight.

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The Friends of Mount Auburn has committed to raising $2 million towards the project’s $3 million budget.  To date, the Friends is more than 70% of the way to meet its ambitious goal. To support this project, please download and complete the Asa Gray Garden Downloadable Contribution Form, make your gift online (see Make A Gift below), or contact Jenny Gilbert, Director of Institutional Advancement at 617-607-1970 or for more information.

This project includes several naming opportunities to recognize larger gifts:


Supporting the restoration of Bigelow Chapel’s Great Rose Window will ensure the long-term preservation one of the Chapel’s most celebrated and significant architectural features.

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While the Cemetery is committed to financing the construction of Bigelow Chapel’s new addition and Crematory, the Friends of Mount Auburn is seeking support to complete the restoration of the Chapel’s Great Rose Window.

Support this urgent and important project by making an online gift (see “Make A Gift” below) or contacting Jenny Gilbert, Director of Institutional Advancement at 617-607-1970 or for more information.



Find the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about supporting the Friends of Mount Auburn below.

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Is my donation tax-deductible?
Yes. Because the Friends of Mount Auburn of Mount Auburn Cemetery is qualified as a tax-exempt organization under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code, all gifts to Mount Auburn are fully tax-deductible.

How can I give?
You can mail a check, made payable to the Friends of Mount Auburn, to the attention of Jenny Gilbert, Director of Institutional Advancement at Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. You can call in a credit card number or request a stock transfer form by calling 617.607.1970.

Can I designate my donation as a tribute in honor or in memory of someone?
Yes. You can do so by calling our Institutional Advancement Office at 617.607.1970.

Can the Friends of Mount Auburn accept a matching gift contribution from my company?
Yes. Many companies offer matching gift programs to encourage employees to contribute to charitable organizations. Some provide matching funds to support employee volunteer hours. Most of these programs match contributions dollar for dollar, and some will even double or triple the amount of your gift! Contact your company’s human resources department to find out if they provide matching gifts.

After I make a gift, will I receive a tax receipt?
Yes. The Friends of Mount Auburn will mail a tax receipt within two weeks of receiving your gift. If you do not receive a receipt, please contact Jenny Gilbert, Director of Institutional Advancement at 617-607-1970 or for more information.

Are there naming opportunities in Asa Gray Garden?
Yes. Naming Opportunities begin at the $25,000 level (see “Supporting Asa Gray Garden” above).

What is The Friends of Mount Auburn Tax-ID number?
The Friends of Mount Auburn Tax-ID number is 22-3084639



Make your gift to support the renovation of Asa Gray Garden or the restoration of the Great Rose Window using the online donation form below.

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Aerial View of Asa Gray Garden (left) and Bigelow Chapel (right), January 2018.


Feb 2018: The Harold Whitworth Pierce Charitable Trust awards a grant of $250,000 to name The Pierce Fountain >>>

Aug 2017:  Great Rose Window Restoration Begins >>>





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